Harry glanced towards the unmarked truck parked in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace. It was a stale yellow color, so commonplace that nobody would look twice at it. Even the guards stationed in front of the Palace had to look twice to really get a good idea of what was there.
And Harry had to find some way to sneak in. 'Easy.'
"Alright," he coached quietly, eyes roaming across the red-stained courtyard. Dawn was coming up in just a few minutes, and it was only the beginnings of an adrenaline rush and the bleeding red of the coming dawn that staved off a pang of exhaustion. "Just have to get past a dozen guards, security cameras, microphones, Cormac, Aaron, and a driver. Simple."
He paused. "Ah, who am I kidding? This is gonna be so hard."
Moving before he could have second thoughts, Harry pulled a crystal knife from the air, gleaming and sparkling a dull red. It found itself high in the air not a second later, and Harry allowed darkness to overcome his vision.
Warp energy bled away from him in a shattered cocoon of glass. Even as he rose, Harry could feel his momentum coming to a halt. Another knife formed in time with a chunk of his magic leaving him. Shade wreathed existence once more.
Four times Harry Warped, and four times he appeared higher and higher in the air, moving more sluggishly with each teleport. Thankfully, none of the guards thought to look up, and the one time he saw someone peering out a window, it was on the left side of the Palace. Harry grinned and siphoned another portion of his magic into creating a crystal spear. The lance fell quickly, almost too quickly, but at the very last second Harry caught it and waited.
Then freefall caught him, and the brunt of the adrenaline rush slammed into his veins. Harry felt wonderful. He almost created another knife, but caught himself just before he could allow the creation to take form. 'Is this what skydivers feel like?' he asked giddily. 'If so, I can see why they jump out of planes so much.'
The euphoria only lasted for a few scant seconds before Harry had to ready his spear. He launched it downwards, straight into a copse of bushes. The familiar sizzling sound of crystal striking ground and cracking met his ears, and, praying that not too much of his momentum would transfer over, he Warped.
Nausea slammed into his gut, nearly knocking his feet out from under him. Still, he appeared in the world once again, ready to hurl. Bile rose in his throat. He pushed it down forcefully and peered through the brush. Thankfully, none of the guards were approaching his little hedge ring, and some of his nausea had faded into the shining abyss of his soul. He selected a sunbeam and brought it to the surface. A familiar, scaly glass-skin flecked off his arms, revealing nothing but smooth dirt and cool air beneath it. Harry grinned and transferred the invisibility to his spear. It had split at one point, becoming three slivers of crystal. He grabbed two, leaving one as a softly shining beacon. It would fade, but hopefully not before he placed the other two lances at their points.
Harry poked his head over the hedge. The only guard in sight was staring at the cream-yellow truck, his rifle gripped tightly in his hands. Harry brought his spear to bear and aimed. His throw was off point, but not by much, and with a grunt he Warped to the guardpost instead of the wall he'd planned.
Breath, frigid and wintry, caught in his throat when the guard glanced up. Harry pulled back behind the guardpost. More magic flared in his system, but he pushed it down. 'Not yet,' he thought bitterly, and almost reluctantly, the magic obeyed.
A minute passed, then two, then five. Harry waited until he couldn't hear the steady breathing of the guard before he aimed his next spear. It was a simple thing to Warp to the roof of the guardpost and crouch down. The sun hadn't yet broken over the horizon, but it seemed extremely close to; the deep reds and violets of dawn had faded into a golden yellow color. "Four minutes, probably less," Harry deduced. "How can I make this count?"
The guard, still watching the truck closely, glanced over towards the door to the Palace. Harry looked that way as well. Cormac's familiar flame-red hair was the only defining factor in the pre-dawn dimness, but there was no mistaking that, and the sheer black that moved against the faintly illumined background could only be Kingsglaive uniforms. Harry had only just brought his own; leaving it in his locker would have bought a bit of time, but not enough to count.
Harry strained his ears, but he couldn't hear what Cormac and Aaron were talking about over the faint rumble of the truck. A flare of magic caught his attention from within, and he grinned. A new spell, revealing itself as a distinctly different sunbeam than the rest. He grasped it, inspecting it briefly, before shedding his invisibility.
"Illusion," he whispered. Light bent, twisted, warped. Steam rose from his skin as it began to grow red with the tinge of sunburn, but that just as quickly faded into the brown-black shale of the guardpost roof. Harry waved his hand. The faintest impression of a finger remained, almost a delay between his illusion and the skin peeking through. Harry smiled weakly. The invisibility flickered and failed from moving too quickly, but even with a bit of a figure left in view, it was better than nothing.
Harry moved, then, releasing the shards of his spear into the wind and throwing himself over the side of the roof. He dashed, kicking up bits of dirt and dust even as Cormac and Aaron approached. The guard did nothing as he slid underneath the truck and came around the other side, clambering onto the roof.
"You're going to be joining us, Arrault?" he heard Cormac ask. Harry blinked. Who was Arrault?
"Won't be," a gruff voice answered. "Her Majesty needs the guard here, especially since you people with your magic spells are gone. Her Majesty's on a trip to France soon; meeting with an ambassador or summat. Half the guard's going with her, so the other half's got to keep your recruits in line."
Aaron made a noise of affirmation. "Watch Potter, would you?" he asked seriously. "Be careful. The boy's slippery at the best of times, and Her Majesty's adamant on him not leaving the castle."
Harry felt a pang of guilt, but quashed it just as quickly. 'They need me,' he reminded himself. 'They need me to keep them safe.' Harry felt the illusion flicker, a faint lightening of his skin and a bit of heat that pricked in the center of his soul. He winced when the guard glanced up at his position. Thankfully, neither Cormac nor Aaron appeared to have noticed.
"I'll keep an eye on him," the guard promised. He grinned a bit, and Harry once again caught a glance to his position. "Saw him just a bit ago, in fact. Sulking, but he seems okay. Didn't look like he'd gotten any sleep last night. Now I mention it, I didn't either."
Arrault yawned, deep and powerful. Harry scowled even as he felt the irresistible urge to yawn as well. A deep burp echoed from his mouth as soon as he opened it.
Everyone froze. Harry hissed in displeasure and pressed himself as close to the roof as possible. The illusion flickered again, just faintly, but enough for the guard to pass a warning glare his way. Harry simply blinked back owlishly.
"Had too many beans last night?" Cormac asked weakly. Arrault shook his head and rubbed at his scalp with his free hand.
"Might've been," he admitted. "Us regular guards don't get the kind of fancy food you Kingsglaive do. Nothing but beans and pork. Asparagus, too, if Captain's feeling particularly generous."
Harry breathed a sigh of relief. The three chatted for a few more minutes, each word gnawing at a growing impatience in Harry's gut, before Cormac finally cleared his throat and looked around. "Dawn's just broken," he noted. "Aaron, let's get the truck packed and get going. Need to be in Otterburn by tomorrow morning."
"We'll make it there by nightfall at this rate," Aaron muttered. Still, he followed Cormac as the men began to load crates in the back of the truck. Harry watched closely, not daring to switch back over to his invisibility spell even when the illusion flickered twice more. More light broke through, stinging his already-red skin and staining the wooden crates in the bed of the truck an umber-red.
The moment Aaron finished stacking the last of the crates in the bed of the truck, Harry scrambled down from the roof, trying to make as little noise as possible. The few sounds that came from weight shifting on the chassis were muffled by Cormac's loud conversation with Arrault. Aaron beckoned Cormc over, then tossed a tarp on top of Harry and the crates. The sounds of shuffling fabric and a stretching sensation across Harry's back followed soon after.
Harry winced in a vain attempt to control his breathing. Small, dark space didn't mesh well with him at all. The cupboard was okay, but that was because it was the cupboard, the place he'd slept with Robin and his ratty little blanket for years. Harry almost immediately recalled the first time the Queen had led him into one of the lockers—they couldn't even be called that, given they were the size of a small walk-in closet—and shut the door as a demonstration of its sturdiness.
Harry's cheeks flushed red as he remembered the mounting panic in his gut. The same panic, mind, that chilled his blood to ice and lanced fire through his bones. Panic chilled and scalded and he needed to get out now before the walls closed in—
Harry breathed a sigh of relief when the truck final started moving. The illusion had been a massive drain, so huge that even Warping had been dwarfed by its needs. He pushed around inside his soul, looking for any dregs of energy left. A few clumped together sluggishly, and though he could feel it beginning to regenerate it would take a n hour at least to get back to a usable capacity. Harry grabbed the last few strands of magic in his person and meshed it with a sunbeam that brought with it the thought of a sharp edge and glittering fragment of glass.
A simple crystal dagger, even cleaner in design than the ones he usually conjured, sparkled into existence with a flash and a clang of glass on glass. Harry winced, inwardly hoping that the dull rumble of tires treading across road would be enough to mask the sound. A trio of neat cuts left him a triangular hole in the tarp, just enough to look through. The get out get out get out chanting in the back of his head faded into an unintelligible whisper, soon gone from thought entirely.
Red had left the sky entirely, instead becoming a golden-yellow that glowed through a thin layer of flowing clouds. Harry breathed deeply, watching street signs flash past at progressively higher speeds. With the illusion faded and nigh-all of his magic gone, he sat and waited.
Cormac and Aaron stopped twice: once for gas, as he found when he was nearly caught after poking his head out through the hole in the tarp, and once for food. Harry found his stomach growling, but didn't dare leave the tarp in case the two of them left without him. All that showed through the tarp was the sky, changing from yellow to blue to a gradual grey as the clouds thickened.
"Don't you dare rain," he muttered, just as a fat, cold droplet of water splashed on his face. "Wonderful." He cast a weak Shell, just enough not to be noticed, and relaxed back into the hard metal of the truck bed. His shield rippled feebly when the rain struck it with ever-increasing fervor. Little plops of heat pulsed through the shield every now and then, its hexagonal panels vibrating slightly, but to Harry's delight, it held through the storm.
Then a metallic slam echoed throughout the chassis of the truck, and he was moving again.
An hour, then two, then so many that Harry lost count and simply contented himself with staring at the roiling grey sky. Bumps and cracks pervaded the journey, cracking his back and knuckles. Even the prospect of curling up and going to sleep became a distant memory in time. His world became grey light, filtered through with the blue of magic and the streaking brown of an occasional tree branch.
He yawned. That tingle in his limbs hadn't gone away, not since he'd bounced on a particularly bad pothole and jabbed something in his shoulder blades. The truck came to a coasting, quiet stop.
"Let's go, before it gets any darker," he heard Aaron mutter. Harry tried to blink back the exhaustion rubbing at the insides of his eyes. The tarp came back, and Harry, panicking, threw the first spell that came to mind.
'Thank the gods it's invisibility,' he whispered internally. His limbs vanished into the familiar dusting of Crystal sand just before Cormac peered over the various crates loaded into the back. He popped one open experimentally.
"Anybody order some wicked brass knuckles?" he asked with a smirk. Harry maneuvered himself as best he could and peered into the box. Indeed, a half-dozen sets of gleaming knuckles, a shiny silver instead of the platinum-gold he expected of brass, lay in neat piles at the bottom of the box. Beside them were six streamlined spears, more javelins than anything else, made from smooth steel and shining wood. Harry almost picked one up, but paused when Cormac went for them as well. The Irishman grinned and tested it against something over the lip of the bed.
Harry winced at the crashing sound and faint impact. "Keep the destruction for the actual mission, Cormac. Doubt the residents like to clean up after your messes."
"Sod it, Aaron," Cormac shot back good-naturedly. "If it's destructible, it's obviously not safe enough to be around me. Remember that table in that bar in St. Louis?"
"I think you mean 'pile of splinters'," Aaron groaned. "Really, Cormac, we need to get a move on. It's already hitting sunset, and they only come out around night according to the sources. I want info, not lollygagging."
"Yes, sir!" Heavy footfalls crashed around outside before all went silent. Harry dared to peek out over the lip of the truck bed. Aaron and Cormac, luckily, had their backs to him, and they couldn't see the way his form flickered when he leapt out of the bed of the truck. HE hastily shoved one of Cormac's spears in his pocket-space, granted upon special request by the Queen herself, and searched through the rest of the crates. Most were food, water, and blankets, though Harry didn't see why two people would need more than a half-dozen. The jackpot, however, came from a beautiful pair of knives, curved inward along the blade's edge, that gleamed an almost gold color in the combination of neutral grey and fiery gold. Even the single rapier he found balanced perfectly on his wrist, though it was a bit too long either way.
Harry grabbed the knives and their holsters without a second thought before running to a tree. Aaron's head whipped around when Harry stepped on a twig, but by the time his eyes caught the truck Harry was already cowering behind a trunk and ready to Warp away.
Cormac and Aaron parked in the strangest little area Harry had ever seen. The abundance of apple trees made the walk along the dirt trail lovely and fragrant, but the little dust-filled cul-de-sac of farmland and barns they'd parked in only saw grass and fallow fields for miles around. Harry strained his ears. Somewhere in the very edge of his hearing, he could make out the sound of car tires dragging their quarries along an asphalt road, combined with the occasional beep of a far-off horn.
Cormac and Aaron froze, eyes wide and whipping around. Harry swore softly, though it only seemed to add fuel to the fire; Cormac's eyes locked on his position for a moment before peering past him. "You hear that?" he asked quietly. Harry scampered up one of the apple trees lining the path. The few cracks and snaps of bark chips falling only seemed to agitate Aaron, whose teeth were grinding and fists blazing, further.
"I heard it," he grunted. "Let's find it."
Cormac charged forward without a second thought, swinging one of the edges of his spear. It cleaved through a good few inches of the trunk with little apparent effort. Harry cursed and fell to the ground, hands outstretched to catch his fall. HE glanced up, one of the knives already in his hand, but before he could Warp away the terrifically sharp point of Cormac's spear had rested between his eyes.
"Harry James Potter, you are in so much trouble," he muttered. The invisibility spell fizzled out, revealing his scraped fingers in a tangle of dirt and crystal dust.
Where Cormac had a disappointed crease to his brow, Aaron looked visibly furious. "What the hell are you doing here?" he snarled. "Last I checked, you were explicitly banned from joining us on this mission!"
Harry stayed silent, his lips glued together. The dreaded pit of shame and anger melded in his stomach, becoming a glue that stuck his hands to his sides and dragged his face towards the ground. He began to count the pebbles embedded in the dirt when Aaron spoke again. "You're lucky I don't knock you straight out and send you back to Buckingham by mail! What were you thinking¸ coming along on a life-threatening assignment without any knowledge, any weapons, and backup, and absolutely zero permission? Hm? Tell me that."
Harry took a deep breath in an attempt to force the growing rage down. It was a harder effort than he expected. "I came here because I wanted to be of use, sir," he said stiffly. The barest twitch of a snarl on Aaron's lips was the only sign that he'd said the wrong thing.
"You'd be of better use back at the Palace, training to be a good Kingsglaive, not risking your neck with us." Cormac laid a hand on Aaron's shoulder and stepped forward, his gaze noticeably kinder.
"Harry, listen," he said quietly. It's not that you're a bad member of the Kingsglaive, really. It's just that you're not good enough yet."
"But I am!" Harry snapped back. "I am good enough. I beat Aaron the last time we sparred!"
"You tied with me, you brat!" Aaron roared. "And it only took one punch to send you reeling. One! If you can't take a beating, you won't be able to do shit in the Glaive!"
"I don't need to when I have this—"
Harry yelped just as the Shell he'd cast reinforced itself with a glowing stream of magic. It sparkled with inner strength that could probably turn aside a decent fireball, and definitely could outright block a swing of Cormac's lance.
It completely shattered under a single one of Aaron's blazing-fast jabs.
Harry stared, agape, at the shards of crystal that fell down around him, glowing and fading into motes of dust. He looked up at Aaron, clad in a suit and brass knuckles, dark hair cropped closely to his face. The man's breath came in ragged pants. Angry breathing, Harry realized with a start, not the gasps of a person dripping with sweat and tiredness.
"Like I said, you can't do shit." Aaron turned around and started walking back towards the distant set of houses and groves of apple trees. "You should just go back while you can. Use the mobile in the car, or Cormac can lead you to the nearest house. Just leave, Potter. You're not ready for this yet."
Cormac gave him a look, pity blended with disappointment. Somehow, the stare only made him feel more furious. "There's a phone in the truck," he said weakly. "I should really go make sure Aaron doesn't do something stupid. I know you can take care of yourself around normal stuff, but this really is a life-threatening situation we're dealing with here. I don't want to see you get hurt before you can actually fight in the Glaive, Harry. Be safe."
With that, Cormac left, leaving Harry alone on the ground. He clutched the knife he'd stolen in one hand. A frigid raindrop splashed his face for the second time that day.
Harry decided, right then and there, that he hated Aaron Maccoby.